This masterpiece of black humor, beloved in Spain but too little seen elsewhere, threads a scathing critique of Franco-era values through a macabre farce about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter and reluctantly takes over her father’s job so the family can keep their government-allotted apartment. As caustic today as it was in 1963, this early collaboration between Luis García Berlanga and his longtime screenwriter Rafael Azcona is an unerring depiction of what Berlanga called “the invisible traps that society sets up for us.” A furiously funny personal attack on capital punishment, The Executioner escaped the state censors who sought to suppress it, and today is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish films of all time.
Sourced from a new 4K scan of the 35mm original negative, The Criterion Collection presents Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The image is presented in 1080p/24hz.
The presentation looks surprisingly good, but the opening gave me a bit of a worry: once the opening credits end there appear to be a number of missing frames. Made in Spain while Franco was still in power, I wouldn’t have too been surprised to learn that this film—critical of capital punishment and the use of Spain’s favourite tool for the job, the garrote—came under heavy censoring. The supplements confirm that this certainly was the case, though it appears it’s not as big a concern as I would have figured: though the version shown in Spain was trimmed down, the version released to Italy for film festivals was apparently left intact, to the chagrin of the far right in Spain. So as to why there appear to be frames missing from the opening I haven’t the foggiest idea, but it’s an issue limited to the beginning of the film; I don’t recall any other jumps later on in the film.
Past that the restoration is otherwise very impressive. I don’t recall any large blemishes making an appearance, or minor ones for that matter, the restoration work looking to have been thorough. The digital transfer itself is also superb, delivering a high amount of detail from long shots to close-ups, which helps in delivering those textures and a nice sense of depth. Contrast looks decent enough with adequate white and black levels and nice gray tonal shifts in between. Film grain is present but it’s very fine, barely noticeable at time, but what you can make out looks to be rendered cleanly.
Other than the hiccup at the beginning it’s an impressive image, and hopefully (especially judging from the clips of Berlanga’s other films shown throughout the features on this disc) we’ll get more releases of the director’s work with presentations like this one.
The lossless Spanish 1.0 PCM mono track sounds fine but lacks fidelity and range. Dialogue at least sounds clear, as does music, but it’s ultimately a bit lifeless. There can be a slightly audible hiss here and there but there are no severe moments involving damage: no drops, pops, or cracks.
Criterion manages to pack on a few fairly lengthy features, though one of the features on here, the one I was most looking forward to, can’t really be classified as a “lengthy” one: Pedro Almodóvar pops up for 4-minutes (well, not even) to talk about his “favourite” film. I don’t think he really explains why it is his favourite, but he talks about some standout points to the film, talks about Berlanga as one of Spain’s great filmmakers, and offers his thoughts on why the filmmaker probably hasn’t found the foreign audience he deserves (he blames it most, amusingly, on the fact his films are hard to subtitle because characters are talking over each other). It’s fine but I’m hoping when this interview was originally recorded it wasn’t the only film he sat down to talk about for future Blu-ray releases.
Made for this release is the 57-minute documentary The Bad Spaniard about director Luis García Berlanga, the title referring to what General Franco called him. To talk about the director, Criterion managed to get an interview with the director’s son, José Luis Berlanga, along with interviews with film critic Carlos F. Heredero, writers Fernando R. Lafuente and Bernardo Sanchez Salas, and the director of the Berlanga Film Museum, Rafael Maluendá. It works as an excellent introduction to the filmmaker as it offers a decent biography of his early life and his career. His son, on top of offering a more personal perspective of his father, also offers a tour through the man’s study, going through some of his possessions, including letters. The participants also talk about what makes a Berlanga film a Berlanga film and they go through his work to talk about his unique elements. There is more of a heavy focus on The Executioner, and it’s during this portion where we get more of a backstory to that film’s production. With this we also get some background history on Spain’s film industry and some insights into the censorship that occurred. Intercut between talking heads, clips from the filmmaker’s other work, and Berlanga going through his father’s stuff, it’s an engaging and thorough documentary, and probably the release’s best feature.
A 28-minute 2009 episode of the Spanish television program La mitad invisible is also included. The title translates to The Invisible Half, the title being in reference to that part of a piece of art that helps make it last, the part that we can’t see (I didn’t say the show was innovative or ground-breaking, just explaining its premise). The program can be a bit twee (and I mean that in the obnoxiously cute way) but if you can make your way through this episode, which focuses on The Executioner’s lasting popularity in Spain, it at least contains some solid interviews, including great archival interviews with Berlanga. The host also visits the film’s editor, Alfonso Santacana, who talks about the cuts made to please the censors, and there is some history about how differing factions within the Franco regime actually helped get the film made and released. There is some good material in here, you just have to look past some of the corniness of the program.
The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer, while the insert features a new essay by David Cairns, where the scholar admires the film’s balancing of the unease and comedy.
I was hoping for a lot from the Almodóvar interview only to be a little let down by its brevity but the remaining supplements proved to be far meatier than I would have initially expected.
As a whole I admittedly didn’t expect much from this edition but it proves to be a fairly strong one. It not only features a rather gorgeous looking presentation but it also delivers some rather terrific supplementary material that will get viewers quickly acquainted with the filmmaker and his work.